Scoundrels of integrity: Comey, Mueller, and Zechariah ben Avkulas

James Comey and Robert Mueller, official portraits, public domain; Rabbi, wikimedia
James Comes and Robert Mueller, official portraits, public domain

Mueller and Comey. Two men of integrity who against their best efforts and intentions may take their place among effectuators of what could be the most irresponsible and deadly administration in the history of the republic. Comey, by releasing a foolishly-timed letter saying the Clinton email investigation was re-opened, too close to the election to undo any damage. Mueller, just this week, by refusing to spell out honest and well-supported conclusions, because he wouldn’t go beyond the “four corners” of his report, even to say aloud that “constitutional process” meant impeachment.

There’s a brilliant story in the Talmud about how integrity precipitated the destruction of Jerusalem and the second Temple. It has two parts. The first part, more well-known, is about the harm of humiliation, but it’s the second one that speaks to the dangers of integrity. To set the scene, part one tells about a fellow named Bar Kamtza who gets an invite to a lavish banquet that was meant for Kamtza. The host of the banquet hates Bar Kamtza and wants to throw him out, but Bar Kamtza begs to be allowed to stay, rather than be humiliated in front of high society, including the leading rabbis. He even offers to pay for the whole banquet – but he is summarily evicted.

The second part of the story is how Bar Kamtza manipulates things to get revenge on everyone, most especially the rabbis who he thinks let this happen. He convinces Roman officials to send a sacrifice to the Temple and see if it’s accepted. If so, fine and good, he tells them, but if not, that proves the Jews are getting ready to rebel. Being dunces (or perhaps looking for a pretext for invasion), the Romans make Bar Kamtza personally responsible for delivering the animal to be sacrificed.

On the way Bar Kamtza slightly injures the animal, enough to cause a blemish that will make it invalid for sacrifice. The rabbis realize something is up. They argue that the priests should offer it anyway, in order to avoid war. But Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas says, no, if we did that people would think they can send a blemished animal to be sacrificed. If so, say his colleagues, let’s send someone to kill Bar Kamtza, so word won’t get back to the Romans. But Rabbi Zechariah says, no, people will say we killed someone for offering a blemished animal. So even though everyone is fully aware of the deadly trap, they do nothing to stop it, all in the cause of integrity.

The story is filled with scoundrels and people who abet them: first the Romans, who think they have the right to wipe out any people that wishes for freedom. Second, Bar Kamtza, who pursues the greatest vengeance imaginable, because his pride is more important to him than anyone else’s life. Third, the unnamed host, who shames Bar Kamtza. But fourth and foremost, there is Rabbi Zechariah, who insisted that integrity outweighed any consequences, and the rabbis and priests that went along with him.

Bar Kamtza’s revenge wasn’t just about bringing on the wrath of Rome, but about putting the rabbis in the position of causing it.

There’s no lack in the world of scoundrels willing to abuse power for material gain or for the emotional gain of humiliating others. We have a political administration led by many such scoundrels and people who make excuses for them. But there were also two men of integrity in the halls of bureaucratic power, each one a singular clarion by virtue of his reputation, one choosing to intervene, one choosing to not intervene enough, at a crucial juncture, thereby steering society toward this bizarro world, where the guilty are more protected and the innocent destroyed. All in order to live up to some ideal of integrity.

I don’t believe either one made their choices for egotistical reasons. Nor could anyone say they are scoundrels, except someone who is enthralled to our president. On the contrary, there was too little pride or boldness in their choices. But neither do the rabbis say that the Temple was destroyed because of Rabbi Zechariah’s ego or concern for his own reputation. Rather, they blame his humility, anv’tanuto. Humility, because all three men thought, who am I to act on my own moral judgment, when the system I believe in says integrity should look otherwise?

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan kicks off the whole story with a verse, “Happy is the one who fears; while the one who stiffens his heart will fall into evil” (Proverbs 28:14). Even good people can stiffen their heart in order to do “the right thing”. In extraordinary times like the ones we live in now, integrity, which should be a moral bulwark, can become such a stumbling block that it trips up even the best of us. To our misfortune, we will continue headlong with our stumbling, right along with them.

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and the translation of Laments. David also teaches nigunim and is an avid dancer. He was ordained by both JTS and Reb Zalman.
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